The latest domestic noir from the queen of Sydney suburbia is an indulgent but hugely enjoyable page-turner, exploring family dynamics in the wake of a disappearance.
With the disappointment of Truly Madly Guilty still fresh in my memory, I approached Moriarty’s nearly 500-page-long novel with a degree of trepidation: would I once again have to suffer through 200 pages of pure filler? While in the end I wasn’t fully convinced that this story needed to be told over half a thousand pages, I was engaged and entertained from start to finish.
I have a soft spot for the “family” novels that lean into the family dynamics and secrets, inter-generational conflict, and the way relationships get tested when a calamity or trying circumstances suddenly turns cracks into chasms. You get exactly that with the Delaney clan, whose world is turned upside down when Joy Delaney, an aspiring grandmother and a mean tennis doubles player at sixty-nine, goes missing one day, leaving behind a garbled text to her children about going “off grid”.
For more than forty years, Joy and husband Stan ran the local tennis school, while also finding time to raise four children. Now that they’ve sold their business, Joy and Stan are not coping well with the emptiness of the retirement; to Joy’s secret despair, none of her grown children have grandkids requiring grandparent duties. When Joy disappears, suspicion naturally turns to her hulking husband, whose face bears what could be fingernail scratch marks, and whose argument with Joy was overheard the night before. Could it be that their neighbourhood of family pets and garden sprinklers, paid-off mortgages and nicely modulated voices became a scene of a brutal crime?
Meanwhile there’s a second mystery to uncover within the time-jumping narrative, one that could potentially shed light on the mystery of Joy’s disappearance. What exactly is the deal with Savannah, a strange young waif who arrives in the dead of the night on Stan and Joy’s doorstep, bloodied and in need of a nice meal and shelter? Joy is thrilled to have Savannah in the house as a distraction, especially when she turns out to be a first-rate cook. Her children of course suspect a manipulative schemer, and so her presence inevitably gives rise to tension and some volcanic revelations later on in the book.
The mystery is told in snippets from multiple perspectives of Joy, her children, police investigators, as well as the invisible people that our main characters wouldn’t pay much attention to: cafe waiters, beauticians, cleaners, Uber drivers, who all can’t help but overhear what could be vital clues. All of these side characters have their own lives and problems, however I was on the fence on whether they were needed. In many ways, the novel is all about the limited nature of perspective and the impossibility of anyone seeing a full picture, and the peripheral characters do help to fill in the suburban world of the novel. I still think I might have preferred a somewhat tighter focus and page count.
The book is at its best exploring the frailties and frustrations of Joy and Stan’s passionate but complicated marriage, and delving into what makes the four very different siblings – troubled blue-haired Amy, flashy highflier Troy, passive Logan, migraine-suffering but driven Brooke – tick. Their tennis-obsessed childhood left a mark; all four were talented players but none achieved a serious tennis career despite the high parental expectations, a fact that nobody in the family can quite forget. Moriarty is always good at making you care about her flawed, fully formed characters, and peppering the paragraphs with observations that are just so sharp and on point. Some important set pieces, such as the tension-filled Father’s Day lunch gone spectacularly wrong (complete with the Battle of the Brownies), deliver an absolute thriller.
The final fifth set of the novel is not perfect: when the mystery is resolved, you’re asked to accept that about five separate coincidences, two involving family pets, could have happened right after another for the events to happen just so. Moriarty herself must have been aware of the ridiculousness, since the police investigator actually remarks on the fact that the story involves far too many pets. Right at the very end, however, she goes and throws in a truly chilling last chapter that makes you see a major character in a whole different light, and concludes the novel on a very disturbing note.
Apples Never Fall may not have the keen satirical edge of Nine Perfect Strangers, or the countdown intensity of Big Little Lies, but it’s yet another satisfying read from an author I’ve come to really enjoy.
P.S. Without spoiling anything, one of the crucial plot points involved, of all things, a naughty cat with a habit of stealing clothes from the neighbours’ washing line. This sounded preposterous and utterly contrived, until a google search informed me that yes, apparently some cats do pinch people’s clothes for funsies. Cats are just such magnificent weirdos.
P.P.S. I think this is the first novel I’ve read that explicitly mentions Covid, Australian lockdowns and the Great Toilet Paper Craze of the 2020. It was so bizarre to see it in fiction when the memories of all that insanity are still so fresh.